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Looking Back at Maggie ThatcherLooking Back at Maggie Thatcher

Looking Back at Maggie Thatcher

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might be building a house of cards with his no-deal approach to crashing out of the European Union. But Russell Kuykendall says a BBC series details with delicate balance how the late Margaret Thatcher taught UK Conservatives about playing a new deck.

Russ Kuykendall
4 minute read

Steve Condie and James House present what surely qualifies as that rarest of commodities: a balanced bio-documentary of the late Baroness Thatcher, the longest-serving prime minister of the United Kingdom in the 20th century, 1979 to 1990. Condie and House unfold their account over five 60-minute episodes.

I was reminded of Ken Burns’s The Civil War that featured readings by actors of letters written by eyewitnesses. Condie and House’s Thatcher: A Very British Revolution is a Ken Burns-style bio-doc, but with living people. They rely on edited interviews with her (aging) contemporaries. There are her supporters: Norman Tebbit, Nigel Lawson and Jonathan Aitken. Her opponents: Kenneth Clarke (who opposed her election as leader) and Michael Heseltine who proverbially wielded the sword to bring her down. Neil Kinnock weighs in from the Labour side levelling his criticism with unrequited verve, as does former Labour MP Shirley Williams, albeit as a grudging defender and admirer. Also included are a few public servants, notably her private secretary (1983-1990, Charles Powell, and her chief press secretary (1979-1990) and irrepressible defender, Bernard Ingham.

Making Margaret kicks off the narrative with her wresting the leadership of the original political party, the British Conservative Party, in 1975 from Ted Heath. The tale turns to her winning Power in 1979, becoming only the third woman democratically elected as a head of government.

The third instalment tackles her dealing with Enemies: her battle with Britain’s militant union leadership following “the winter of discontent” and her election to Ten Downing Street. We also see Prime Minister Thatcher’s over-ruling the naysayers in her own cabinet to lead Britain to defend and to retake the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invaders. Thus, she restored Britons’ sense of themselves not seen since the Second World War. The episode recounts her dealings with enemies among her own cabinet and caucus – “the wets” – whom she had included in her cabinetmaking, and the shuffles made necessary by their intransigence.

The fourth episode, That Bloody Woman, traces the growing discontent among the British public as well as among not just “the wets” but from her cabinet and caucus loyalists. The final episode, predictably titled Downfall, traces failings of a prime minister at the height of her powers who had lost touch with her base of support among the British voting public, seemingly constitutionally unable to take political advice even from those who loved her best. 

It is here that we see what may qualify as hubris on the prime minister’s part, her demotion and ill treatment of Geoffrey Howe and his delivery of a Commons resignation statement calculated to wield a sword against the prime minister’s anti-European sentiments, if not against her holding the high office.

I take away three over-arching observations from my viewing.

First, I was struck by how Margaret Thatcher profoundly upended the status quo in a United Kingdom that had nationalized its coal and steel industries, its rail network and several of its historical automobile manufacturers, as well as healthcare and housing. Thatcher sought to recover an economy more susceptible to the vagaries of a free – albeit regulated – market, closer to the British economy that spear-headed the industrial revolution and arguably (with the Dutch) invented the modern banking and financial system. Even so, it was years – not months – before domestic, let alone foreign, investors were sufficiently convinced of the Iron Lady’s resolve in order to begin re-investing in the mother of modern economies.

Secondly, I am struck by how well-served Prime Minister Thatcher was by her allies in cabinet, by her supporters in the 1922 Committee and by career public servants. It is difficult not be moved by Charles Powell’s reading aloud the letter he addressed to her, composed on Ten Downing Street letterhead on the night of her win in the 1987 general election following a bruising campaign during which the prime minister had borne the brunt, leading from the front.

Finally, while viewing the final episode, I recalled hearing her speak one sentence in an interview conducted leading up to 1987’s general election day. Thatcher had begun her tenure in 1979 striking a chord of humility, citing St. Francis of Assisi. When the BBC’s John Cole asked whether or not she would lead her party into another general election she replied, “Yes, I hope to go on and on.”

Geoffrey Howe’s resignation remarks alone in which he mounted a defense of Britain firmly ensconced in Europe did not do her in. Nor did Michael Heseltine’s taking license from Howe’s statement to challenge his leader. What may have finally done in her leadership and undermined her receiving the required support from her party was her refusal to engage in some “grassroots,” eyeball-to-eyeball campaigning among the backbenches prior to the fatal outcome of the vote. Instead, the prime minister flew to Paris for a summit of world leaders.

As the results of the vote were reported to her in Paris, Prime Minister Thatcher was four votes short of the required plurality.

I am reminded of Churchill’s retort to someone who identified those on the Commons’s opposition benches as “the enemy.” Churchill corrected his interlocutor, insisting that the opposition benches were populated by “adversaries.” Enemies were seated behind him on his own party’s benches!

The political theorist of 19th century British liberalism John Stuart Mill argued the British Conservative Party “must, by the law of its constitution, be the stupidest party.” The great Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli expanded the voting franchise to those Mill described as “stupid” and thus crafted a coalition of the conservative rural and urban working classes with the gentry, defeating the innovation-driven industrial, trading and merchant entrepreneurs who supported the Liberal Party. 

Margaret Thatcher transformed the old Tory party into the party of limited government, innovation, industry, trade and entrepreneurship. She converted a party nominally all about conserving the status quo into the party of change. That may have been her chief undoing, as she won the argument against status quo in favour of change.

And so, they did.

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